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Vol 3, No 23
25 June 2001
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An Ombudsman to Protect Us
Interview with
Katalin Gönczöl [Part 3]

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2

Central Europe Review: Do you ever receive positive feedback concerning your work?

Katalin Gönczöl: Our work goes down fairly well, because the initial positive responses from December 1998 were repeated in 1999 and, as far as I know, at the same time of year in 2000 as well. We come in third place on the list of the four best-known institutions in the country behind the President of the Republic and the Constitutional Court. The difference separating us is a couple of points on a scale of one hundred. I think we scored 64 points. This means that citizens not only appreciate the work done by this institution but are familiar with its existence as well: they know that they can turn to it if they have grievances.

I consider this very positive indeed. Professional relations also indicate that the recommendations are taken very seriously, particularly since the replies furnished are not to be sniffed at. I have never felt that the relations established with any supreme authority have been characterised by overweening arrogance or dismissiveness on their part and that has been the case ever since the very outset. There have been isolated incidences of feeble responses, but that can happen to anyone and I put up with it. I am aware that I do ask quite a lot of the various offices.

To return to what I was saying earlier, laws are not all that effective, only about 60 per cent, but when judging law you have to bear in mind that the legislators' primary concern is not always the human rights dimension. They have to take an array of other factors into consideration as well. Cost effectiveness for example. Countless legal provisions are the result of a political consensus. I, by contrast, have only one value system to defend unshakeably: that of human rights. As to how a professional consensus can be reconciled with a political one and enforced in practice is already in the realm of political responsibility and as such beyond my sphere of competence.

To return to the question of recognition: unless I am very much mistaken, the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities has been elected Deputy Chairman of the European Anti-Racism Committee during his term of office. The Ombudsman for Data Protection stands at the pinnacle of what was acknowledged last year as one of Europe's best data protection systems.

Person of the year

Last year, I was voted Person of the Year by readers of a leading daily which carries out a poll every year. The jury, which takes its decision on the basis of the number of votes cast and the opinions of the journalists, unanimously agreed to break with the tradition of not awarding the distinction to anyone currently holding office. As a result, I had the honour of winning. The prize was presented to me by the owner of the newspaper and the President of the Hungarian Academy of the Sciences, who is the permanent chairman of the jury comprising public figures, famous writers, artists, sportspersons and businessmen, all of whom are Hungarian citizens.

Could you please mention a couple of cases where visible improvements have been brought about as a result of your work?

In residential homes and institutions. By organising continuous follow-up inspections and investigations, I have succeeded in encouraging the bodies in charge of maintaining them and the local county public administration offices responsible for carrying out regular inspections to bear in mind the concerns I voiced in the course of my initial visit. In my opinion, the situation in the homes for the elderly and the destitute, the psychiatric care homes and those for disabled children has improved considerably. As a direct result of persistent and very frequent checks, the same can be said of temporary accommodations and the refugee camps. I cannot gauge it fully, however. Pupils' rights have also been taken more seriously.

The number of complaints from the uniformed services has increased, because we have completed investigations into virtually all the uniformed service branches, amongst the police, the army and prison warders. How am I meant to assess whether they have become more aware of their own basic human rights? By noticing that they are submitting more complaints. They actually have the courage to come forward with complaints now.

I also look upon the funding from the Council of Europe to set up an exchange programme last year, involving a visit by some of the newest Ombudsmen who came to Hungary to gain an insight into how we go about our daily business as a form of recognition. I believe that the exchange proved to be a major success. We put our expertise and our professional programme at their disposal. The funding emanated from the Stability Pact budget.

The Russian Ombudsman, his Deputy and a six-member Albanian ombudsman's delegation headed by the Ombudsman himself spent several days here. In addition, the Romanian Ombudsman and his Deputy paid a thematic working visit here. Last year, the World Association of Ombudsmen held its annual general assembly in Durban, South Africa. I am a member of its Board of Directors as one of the four Europeans holding office there. The Swedish Ombudsman and myself are the two "girls" in the outfit and the other European Directors are from France and Belgium respectively.

Our task will be to enhance co-operation between the large family of Central European ombudsmen—a family already greater in number than in the traditional democracies of the West, we are multiplying fruitfully—to devote particular attention and effort to helping sort out the problems they grapple with, because I am in possession of six years' worth of experience.

When we were not as long in the professional tooth as we are now, when we had just been elected as Ombudsmen, the Polish Ombudsman already had a couple of years of experience and I am extremely grateful to Ewa Letowska, who was the Polish liaison ombudsman for the region in 1988, and who passed on invaluable insights and advice to me based on her experience in the course of a brief dialogue. I feel that it is my duty to follow in her footsteps in this respect by handing down a few tips to my fellow ombudsmen struggling with transitional problems so that they do not end up in a blind alley.

Fewer but more serious complaints

Have the types of problems you are called upon to deal with changed during your term of office? If so, in what way and do they reflect the wider process of economic and social change within society at large?

There are fewer cases connected with compensation, because by and large the process of compensating individuals for loss of property and land under Communism, for being sent to labour camps, wrongfully imprisoned and for sufferings during the Holocaust has been completed, although there is still a handful of acute problems in conjunction with our international commitments to pay compensation. Then there is the question of compensation due to those who were forcibly moved in the framework of the Czechoslovak-Hungarian population exchanges, something I have been drawing Parliament's attention to for years now.

In spite of the fact that we continually stress in every single one of our publications and on every possible occasion that we have no influence over the activities of courts, that we have no authority to investigate them year after year, over ten per cent of the complaints sent to us pertain to precisely that area. That has proven constant.

Complaints against the police and the investigative authorities likewise remain great in number and I would single out for particular mention the fact that around every fourth or fifth complaint is lodged against local authority offices, against mayors and town clerks. I do not believe this should come as any surprise, given that these are the authorities citizens most frequently come into contact with in their daily lives. The more frequent the contacts, the more frequent the scope for mistakes to be made. It is, therefore, fairly obvious that there will not be a major fluctuation in the number of complaints of this type.

Fewer complaints are being submitted in conjunction with pensions, with settling debts and payment of benefits owed. However, the nature of the cases where we establish that breaches of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights have indeed taken place seems to be becoming more serious. To couch it in simpler terms: we are examining fewer complaints, but they testify to more serious problems.

As to whether the changes reflect the more general social and economic trends: I feel that they do, to the extent that certain problems have already been resolved. They do not prey on people's minds so much as a result. New problems have arisen to take their place, however. Even though we do not have much room for manoeuvre to offer assistance, the number of complaints concerning social security has not fallen. The same is true of complaints against monopoly service providers. Electricity, district heating, water and sewage services are in the hands of monopolies operating within a free market economy and, in certain cases, this can lead to abuse and citizens' rights being violated.

To begin with, there was a flood of complaints about the tax authorities, as citizens were not accustomed to the new tax system. They have become used to it in the meantime, however, and the number of complaints has reduced drastically.

I would maintain that Hungarian citizens hanker after security to a greater extent than before. The market economy brought them freedom but not the security they so longed for. This is also true of social security and—although I am lapsing into a generalisation by saying this—of public safety as well, regardless of which public authority is involved in providing it.

Thick skin needed

What kind of case do you find most traumatic?

I attempt to rationalise every complaint, even the most harrowing. To distance myself from it emotionally in the interests of coming up with a solution. From that point of view I have developed a thick skin, a tough set of armour to shield myself to the extent that it is possible to do so.

When I encounter negligence on the part of the authorities in a matter such as a child's death at the hands of an abusive parent, for example, and see that the death could have been prevented were it not for that negligence, I cannot help but be affected. I, too, am deeply moved, shocked to the core, yet I cannot permit these feelings to be reflected in the very slightest in the report summarising the results of the investigation. I am not allowed to dub the tragic events as scandalous, but I can talk about gross negligence.

Which case from last year did you find most worrying?

A case linked to the payment of a subsistence allowance to elderly people not entitled to a full state pension. What at first glance appeared to be a minor case put us on its trail. The authorities are obliged by law to provide some kind of regular income for elderly persons not eligible to receive full pensions to guarantee them a living.

There were local authorities—at the outset we laboured under the misapprehension that it was the only one which engaged in this practice—that paid the benefits in return for the beneficiary mortgaging his home. If the prospective beneficiary refused, he would not be given a penny; the one was made conditional on the other. This was also recorded at the Registry of Title Deeds. As the local authority paid out the subsistence allowance, it redeemed the value of the property.

This represents not only a flagrant breach of human rights, but is also against all the laws currently in force. All that the local authorities are empowered to do in cases such as these—and even then they are only permitted to proceed with the explicit consent of the beneficiary—is to register the subsistence allowance as part of the debts and liabilities of the estate. This means that the beneficiary enjoys the full use of the property during his lifetime, but that if he officially consents via a notary public then his heirs will no longer be entitled to claim that part of the estate, which was paid out to him in the form of the allowance by the local authority. He thereby cuts them off from that portion of their inheritance.

At first, I believed this was a one-off, as I said, but I then arrived at the conclusion that a
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national survey would have to be conducted. It soon became clear that the local authorities of many communities availed themselves of this totally unlawful method, and we succeeded in setting the matter to rights very quickly.

The local authorities amended the practice, the administrative offices issued remarks on the legality of such measures, every local government decree on such matters was re-examined and recommendations were made to the Registries of Title Deeds to the effect that registering properties as mortgaged along the old lines was unlawful. In my opinion the procedure as applied was deeply humiliating, a severe offence against human dignity. It was not just the right to property that was ridden roughshod over to my mind.

In your experience, which groups are the most vulnerable?

Children, the disabled and a group peculiar to Hungary, to whose problems I have paid particular attention, namely people who took out loans from the National Savings Bank (OTP) to purchase their homes prior to 1989. [During Communist rule, it was possible to take out a home loan under extremely favourable conditions with low interest rates. Following the changeover to democracy, the OTP unilaterally altered the terms of these contracts increasing the amount to be paid back in interest from four or five per cent to around twenty five or thirty per cent].

The decision of the Constitutional Court [according to which the constitutionally enshrined right to social security does not imply a constitutionally guaranteed right to housing] has finally closed what proved to be a protracted affair. It is not very reassuring to me, but at least it creates greater legal certainty, and I can call the local authorities to account concerning what they are obliged to provide with reference to the ruling.

At the same time, however, the government is in the process of drawing up a series of legal clauses aimed expressly at throwing a lifeline to the victims of the debt trap who took out their home loans prior to 1989.

Has the overall number of complaints risen?

Yes, by twelve per cent. In spite of this, our backlog has decreased, though disgracefully enough we were still examining cases dating all the way back to 1996 and 1997 in 2000. We simply cannot cope with the workload.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 25 June 2001

Read Part 4 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

Read Part 5 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

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